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Parents wait outside the main campus of the Istanbul University while their children take the national university entrance exams, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Istanbul, Turkey June 27, 2020. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Order from Chaos

Reopening the World: As the country normalizes, COVID-19 strains Turkey’s economy and politics 

Editor's Note:

The following is an excerpt from Reopening the World: How to Save Lives and Livelihoods, a new report where Brookings experts offer ideas to help policymakers protect lives and save livelihoods in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Reopening America and the WorldTurkey has luckily managed to avoid the spike in the number of COVID-19 deaths faced by Italy and Spain. By late April, less than two months after the discovery of the first case on March 10, daily reported cases and deaths had peaked. This allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to announce on May 4 the gradual and phased reopening of the country. The details and the timeline put forward reveal a continued unease between his priority to open the economy and the more cautious approach advocated by Health Minister Fahrettin Koca 

Like elsewhere in the world, getting Turkey back on its feet without triggering a second wave of the pandemic will be a challenge.

Like elsewhere in the world, getting Turkey back on its feet without triggering a second wave of the pandemic will be a challenge. But unlike some other countries, Turkey’s political and economic weaknesses serve as further hurdles. This combination of a weak economy and an unending spiral of authoritarianism will make a robust recovery from the pandemic even more difficult. Instead, the path to normalization is likely to be marked by growing political instability and debates over the likelihood of early elections.  

RESPONDING TO THE VIRUS  

Both the Turkish people and the Turkish government were slow in recognizing the danger posed by the coronavirus. As late as midMarch, more than a week after the first case was discovered, President Erdoğan continued to argue that Turkey would not be seriously affected and even predicted Turkey would benefit economically from it. 

The initial response to the pandemic was hesitant, incremental, and even contradictory at times. There was also a degree of tension between the health minister’s preference for policies shaped by science and the president’s political priorities. Nevertheless, Erdoğan did eventually lend his support to social distancing measures, closures of non-essential shops and schools, travel bans, and even a ban on those aged 20 and younger and 65 and older from venturing outdoors. Because the agricultural and industrial sectors were to be kept open at all costs, strict curfews were only imposed during weekends and holidays and were relaxed during the week to enable people to work.  

As of May 25, total confirmed COVID-19 cases had reached more than 157,000 while deaths stood at almost 4,370. Since April 12, when 5,138 new cases were recorded, daily numbers of new cases have trended generally downward to 987 new cases on May 25. Turkey also has a strikingly low confirmed number of deaths per 1 million people—51.46— compared to much higher fatality rates in France (435), Germany (99), Italy (524), Spain (615), and the United States (295).  

Several factors unique to Turkey could have led to this low death rate, including the youth of the Turkish population, thought to afford some level of immunity to COVID-19, and the fact that Turkey’s elderly are still mostly looked after by their families or by in-house caretakers, thus avoiding contagious environments in care facilities. This was backed by a relatively robust health system with unusually large numbers of intensive care units and well-trained personnel. Finally, in a change of pace from Erdoğan’s polarizing political style, the health minister’s more constructive, inclusive, and relatively transparent manner helped facilitate compliance with restrictions.  

OPENING THE COUNTRY  

In speeches delivered on May 4 and 11, President Erdoğan put forward a phased normalization plan spread across three months. The stay-athome requirement for seniors over 65 years old and youth under 20 years of age would be partially eased. Domestic and international travel restrictions would be lifted gradually. Universities could open their campuses and return to regular academic calendar from mid-June. However, the president warned that these measures required continued compliance with the normalization rules, especially social distancing and the continued wearing of masks in public spaces and reiterated how the government would be strictly guided by the advice provided by the Ministry of Health.  

However, Erdoğan’s announcement that a range of businesses, including shopping malls, would open May 11 raised question marks about his commitment to scientific guidance over political and economic gain. The health minister appeared alarmed when 2.3 million people crowded shopping centers during the first two days of their opening and warned of the danger of contagion. His criticisms were echoed by academics and experts, including representatives from the Turkish Medical Association and Istanbul Municipality Science Committee. Construction, in particular of shopping malls, has long been one of the prominent hallmarks of the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule since 2002 and a critical part of Erdoğan’s current economic model. Their closures during the pandemic deeply hurt the commercial interests of companies managing these malls, placing Erdoğan under pressure to reopen them.  

With this decision, political expediency continues to trump science, causing policy inconsistencies and putting lives at risk. Thus, the odd inconsistencies that marked Turkey’s attempts to throttle the virus appear set to characterize the country’s normalization, too. For example, the government initially kept parks, open-air facilities, and mosques closed while allowing shopping malls to open. Furthermore, the practice of weekendonly curfews remained in place through the end of Ramadan and Eid in late May. The effectiveness of these intermittent curfews—a practice unique to Turkey—is questionable, as they are alleged to have generated increased traffic before and after the curfews. Much more importantly, academics and scientists complain that they do not have access to detailed data required to provide independent and informed assessments of government policies to reopen the country. The announcement by the health minister that Turkey’s R0 (“R naught”) value stands at 1.56 suggests the virus is not under control. In sharp contrast, in late April, the heads of Germany’s four major scientific research organizations recommended that Germany’s social distancing measures and lockdowns remain in place because Germany’s R0 value had approached 1.  

This suggests that the Turkey’s normalization will be precarious, and risks being further complicated by the economic and political challenges that have marked Erdoğan’s one-man rule.  

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL CHALLENGES  

The pandemic in Turkey once more highlights the close link between politics and economics. Erdoğan constructed his presidential system based on majoritarian rule, disregarding traditional separation of powers and eroding the gains from earlier reforms. In this system, winning elections provides Erdoğan the legitimacy to claim solely to represent the national will of the country. This legitimacy was undermined by his failure to prevent the economy from falling into a recession after a currency meltdown in August 2018 and a particularly polarizing campaign ahead of the local elections in March 2019, which resulted in AKP candidates losing important mayoral races including in Ankara and Istanbul. 

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COVID-19 arrived just after Erdoğan’s approval rating had steadily declined to 41.1 percent in February 2020. Initially, the pandemic caused a rally around the flag effect, temporarily boosting his popularity to 55.8 percent. Since then, it has slipped back down to 52 percent as of April 2020 and will likely continue to decline due to the pandemic’s economic toll. Ali Babacan, a former economy czar credited for Turkey’s economic success a decade ago, criticized the government’s response to COVID-19 and warned of a looming economic crisis. Travel bans and the contraction in international trade is damaging Turkey’s tourism and export earnings, two important drivers of Turkish employment and economic growth. The International Monetary Fund predicted that the economy could shrink by 5 percent and that unemployment could reach over 17 percent by the end of 2020. This picture largely explains the urgency to reopen the economy, although there is no evidence that Erdoğan will adopt major reforms to address Turkey’s deep-seated economic and political problems.  

Instead, all the indications point to Turkey remaining an “illiberal state,” as Erdoğan attempts to perpetuate his rule by returning to the populist’s book of tricks. He has already depicted Turkey as being under assault from external and internal enemies, while describing the struggle against COVID-19 as a liberation war and his government’s performance as the envy of the world. Simultaneously, the “aid diplomacy” that Turkey has pursued during the pandemic, including to the United States, is presented by the pro-government media as a sign of its global power status. In line with this self-ascribed status, Erdoğan has resisted any talks with the IMF to resolve Turkey’s dire external financing problems and sought to resolve them through bilateral currency swap deals using the goodwill garnered by aid diplomacy.  

As ever, Erdoğan remains intolerant of criticism and open debate. Since the pandemic, numerous journalists and social media users have been detained on grounds of disseminating “provocative news,” while media outlets have been fined. The practice of replacing democratically elected mayors belonging to the People’s Democratic Party, the third largest party in the Turkish parliament, with government appointed trustees due to alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party continued during the pandemic. The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party, faces constant obstructionism. His calls for stricter measures in Istanbul to fight the pandemic have been largely ignored while criminal investigations have been launched against him. When Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Istanbul chair for the CHP, remarked that she soon expected “a government change,” Erdoğan responded furiously that the CHP had “fascist mindset” and “a desire to usurp the country’s administration through a coup rather than coming to power through democratic means.” He was similarly strident in his reaction to criticisms of the homophobic sermon delivered by the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate suggesting a link between homosexuality and the pandemic.  

CONCLUSION  

These policies are all too representative of President Erdoğan’s rule. Their primary objective is to maintain his political alliance with MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party) and to consolidate the presidential system to ensure his own political survival. Other post-COVID-19 considerations are secondary.  

With the next elections not scheduled until 2023, commentators do not expect Erdoğan to call early elections due to the continued erosion of his electoral base and instead predict that Turkish politics will become more and more deadlocked. By insisting on opening the economy and pushing forward with normalization, Erdoğan risks a second wave of the pandemic. Ironically, this may only aggravate Turkey’s unresolved problems and make demands for an early election inevitable.

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